In which I’m jealous of your ability to not be jealous

“Why can’t writers just be happy for each other? It’s not a competition.”

Ugh. I wish it wasn’t. I don’t mean that I wish publishing wasn’t a literal competition for readers’ eyes and dollars. It is, and that’s unavoidable. I mean that I wish I didn’t have an overwhelmingly negative response to the success of other writers.

Other writers are, after all, my teammates, my mentors, my brethren, and often my friends. Most of them aren’t even my competition, at least not directly. They write poetry or YA or cozy murder mysteries in which small animals are the real detectives. My books aren’t vying with theirs for the #1 spot in an Amazon category. I was never qualified for the award they just won. That glowing review came from a reader with no interest in my genre. And still—my first reaction to another writer’s good news is negative.

There are two things I’d like you to know about this jealousy, which might more correctly be called envy and which is only vaguely a form of competitiveness. 1) it’s more about me than you, and 2) no, I can’t just turn it off.

Professional envy is a form of self-loathing or imposter syndrome. It’s not that I’m not happy for the person who’s experiencing success. On some level, I am. It’s that their success reinforces my belief that I’m not good enough and that I never will be, that I might as well quit now rather than struggle endlessly to achieve what I’m not capable of achieving. These feelings are soul crushing and constant and I would a hundred percent be rid of them if I could.

I recently won second place in a contest. You’d think I’d be glowing. But mostly I’ve been having detailed conversations with myself about why I didn’t really win anything because even if I did it was a mistake and besides it won’t change anything. My imposter syndrome doesn’t care who wins. Whether it’s me or someone else, it still finds a way to make sure I know that I’m not all that.

When it comes to anxiety or depression, we recognize (I hope) that people aren’t choosing to feel that way, but we lose sight of that when it comes to jealousy, thinking jealousy stems from ill will toward others when it really stems from a fear of failure or a lack of self-esteem.

After a lifetime of struggling with professional envy so bad that I couldn’t write, because in my mind I was already losing before I’d even started, I’ve finally developed some tools that help me continue on in the face of it, but those tools aren’t “just be happy for other people” and “why do you have to be so competitive?” I don’t know why I have to be so competitive. I just know that I am and that it’s kicked my ass my whole life and that being taken to task for it makes me feel worse, not better.

So forgive me. I try not to be a bitch in public about other people’s successes, but occasionally I fail to meet even that low bar. Sometimes I have to mute people to block out their happy news. Often I’m not up to offering a congratulations or a retweet. It’s a matter of emotional survival. In order to keep writing, I have to wrestle with this green-eyed demon every day, and at least once or twice a week, the demon wins.

Keep fighting, everyone. However you do it. If you find joy in other people’s successes, celebrate that! I envy you for it. And if you don’t, don’t add the burden of guilt to your internal struggle. Walk away, take a break, come back when you can say “yay” and almost mean it, and offer condolences and cookies when other writers are having bad days. Some of us were born for darker times.

2 comments

  1. I’m empathising a LOT here. Someone (in my genre) whose books I love gets huge amounts of reviewer praise, industry respect, tweets about a perfect life – how can I match that? I’m *four chapters* into my first book. She’s…well, she’s sprinted through the tape and I might as well turn round before I even put my feet in the blocks. Would you feel any better if I said that you feel as far ahead of me as she does? You might not, but it’s still true!

    1. For sure. We’re all just somewhere in the middle—not the best and not the worst. But my fragile ego is willing to fight over it anyway!

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